This episode of the Janes podcast defines and explores examples of non-traditional threats and looks at how national security can effectively react to these non-traditional threats.
Harry: Hello Sean.
Sean : Hi.
Harry: Thank you for joining us again for this month's edition of our intelligence run through. We're going to have a conversation today about something we've touched on a couple of times, but really focusing on it for the next 20 minutes, which is the amount of what some people still call non-traditional threats that we face. Non-traditional, we'll talk about what that means in a second, but my thought is that actually a lot of these so-called non-traditional threats are actually now the new threats that we face and they're increasing in their effect on what we do in national security and not becoming less of a problem, they're becoming more of a problem. So I want to focus on this non- traditional threat for a few minutes today. As the president of government and national securities with Janes, I think it's important that we do look at this kind of topic because it is a government wide issue. So if I can get you Sean just to remind the audience a bit about yourself, and then we'll get started with the first question defining what is a non- traditional threat. Sean, over to you.
Sean : Okay. Thanks Harry. Yeah, so Sean Corbett, I'm currently the co- chair for the strategic advisory group for James, ex Royal air force intelligence officer, been deployed most places in the world providing operational and strategical intelligence to a number of organizations, including allies and partners.
Harry: Very good. Sean, we are going to talk about national, sorry, non- traditional threats. I get my mouth working for myself this morning. Non-traditional threats. How do we define what a non-traditional threat is? What do you think it means for you in the realm of national security?
Sean : The reason this is so interesting is there's a lot of buzzword bingo out there at the moment. The reason is a good subject to this actually is that non- traditional threats have actually been around probably since mankind, to be honest, but we haven't focused on them and defining them actually is quite complex. I was doing a little bit of research on the subject, there was no common understanding of what a non- traditional threat is. I think before I go further as well, there's an issue with cause and effect. Non- traditional threats can lead to traditional threats and vice versa. So this whole interconnection and linkage, and we need to remember that and sort of step back, but you can look at it from one of many perspectives. So non- traditional threat is something less than all out war and warfare. Then you come on to things that some people call non- traditional threats and I completely understand that is things like cyber attacks, particularly non- attributable ones. Now that's this whole subject for different day. So we should probably park that, terrorism is another one. You and I probably when we joined from day one, certainly I was involved in counter- terrorist operations and I have been ever since. So is that traditional? Is it non- traditional and you go back much further than our time and you look at the Malayan campaigns where counterinsurgency is there and then there's inaudible all sorts. So is that tradition or is it non- traditional? So it is very blurry, but I think for the sake of this discussion, and it is just for this discussion, I think if we focus on those threats that directly or indirectly impact global security, but not manifested by pre- medicated organized application, military force for political gain, a lot of these threats are transnational and that's important when you look at how to counter them.
Harry: Okay. So if we are going to define non- traditional threats then as you've done for the purpose of this conversation, is those things that don't focus purely on the heavy metal warfare aspects of military intervention, and then the range of things that you talked about before. Perhaps we could spend a bit more time just looking at some of those non- traditional threats individually then, some of those characteristics you described, but now looking at them specifically, so things like resource scarcity or the resource frictions that can be caused between countries as expanding boundaries of some countries affect the resources of others, et cetera. You talked about cyber, those included but what are some of those things that we would now characterize as being the non- traditional threats we are facing?
Sean : Yep. We'll have a look at those and again, there's so many interlinks there that we'll start weaving around and coming out some errors. But if you look at the big one that everyone is talking about now, climate change, and the fact is climate change is happening and it's probably happened throughout history. It's just we have a very myopic view of history, but climate change is definitely happening. With that comes an uneven distribution, should we say of natural events? So one of the big things, and one of my interests particularly is water insecurity. It's a very critical element of the state to provide enough water, potable water for populations to exist. I mean, it's the fundamental requirement of life and what we are seeing is that uneven distribution of water naturally, but also exacerbated by the human requirement and national requirement to secure water. I mean, the great example I like to use is the grand Ethiopian renascence dam, which is spanning the blue Nile, accelerated by the Ethiopians. It's going to be the biggest dam, and in fact, is the biggest dam in Africa. But of course when it's complete and even now the filling it early, that will have a direct impact downstream on particularly Egypt, Sudan, and places. But Egypt absolutely relies on the water from the Nile for pretty much this entire life. You've got Ethiopia saying," Well, look we have water and food insecurity. We need this for a power." They've got a burgeoning population, which is poor. We need to do this, but the Egyptian saying," But if you do this, that will affect us." So that's where the cause and effect comes out. Now they're supposed to be and still are negotiating a deal where there's a certain amount of flow, but the Ethiopians are definitely filling it up far quicker than they were going to with the concerns that's causing. If you look at that regionally, the frictions are really there. Most people think that water insecurity is never going to result in all out a war between two nations. But if you stop someone's water supply, it could well do that. Then you've got places like the Metcon valley again, Chinese damming upstream. So water insecurity is a big thing. Then the reason it's all linked because water security then leads to food insecurity because if you don't have water, you can't grow the crops. We're seeing that it's not just about the water. I've been, just because I've got an interest, looking at the locusts plague that's going through Northeast Africa. I mean, this thing is huge, literally thousands and thousands of hectares of food in an area which has already got a food insecurity because of the water and the relevant example, that's not just locusts. So when you compound all that, that is when you start leading to insecurity and the traditional threats. The desertification of Northeastern Nigeria is caused by climate change and it is no accident. There's no surprise really that the areas where you've got most terrorism and extremism are those areas with are suffering that sort of element. Now two things tend to happen, one, what I've just said is activity in the name of whatever particular extremism they're following, but actually it is all about their own security and of course, that that will then develop. Another example is, I know it's one I use quite often, there's the Arab spring phenomena, the causes were the social inequality and the lack of food and all the rest of it. But that was actually caused by a global drought, which in those areas where wheat was being particularly abused and the prices of wheat that create sustainable diet of obviously bread for most of those countries was so great that people then couldn't live and that's when the problem started. So it's all linked.
Harry: So the interesting thing about those examples you've given is how much they are interlinked. You said it all the way through this could lead to that, that leads to the next. Often as you say, you end up with this more in quotes," traditional outcome" for military and national security concerns. But it also seems to me, from what you've said, given the interconnected nature of these phenomena, that you're going to need to have a much more pan government response to these, this can't just be a military response self- evidently, but nor can it just be an environmental agencies response because there may well be security threats that would prevent the environmental agency doing their work. You and I both been involved in operations where people trying to support, for example, NGOs or international organizations operating in good faith, trying to do the right thing, but simply can't because of security issues. So it seems to me that another aspect of this nontraditional threat paradigm that we're talking about today is the need for pan government multi- agency and it doesn't have to be just government agencies, of course. It can be as I've mentioned, NGOs, international organizations and governments, including the military capability for support. So that's where we could step then from those types of traditional and non- traditional threats that you're facing towards, how do you start to resolve this? Because I think it's fair to say multi- agency within government and when you include external from government agencies is a very complicated thing to do. It's often not worked as well as it should and in hindsight, people have pointed to all sorts of lessons they've learned from the process that they would not do differently, they would do differently, sorry, the next time they did it, but somehow it never seems to get fixed. So let's turn from what the non- traditional threats are, which you've described to, what do we do about it? How do we address that?
Sean : Yeah, it's a really complex issue and I think particularly now we should be worried because one of the impacts of the COVID crisis we haven't even mentioned, is that people are looking after their own national interests. Regardless of the United nations you are a member of, and seeing organizations like World Health Organization, the UN almost being ignored because it's all about the national requirement and that's understandable. But when you're looking at these pan national problems, you have to look at them from almost at least a regional or global perspective and they say, I guess this is where we come in and James comes in, is that if you can get predictive intelligence that it's good to tell you where the problems are going to be before they happen and then the supply chain resilience. Because what we're talking really about is an uneven distribution of resources. That's fundamentally what the problem is. So how do you sort that, and that is through the supply chains. I mean, it really interestingly, the eye watering amount of trade that goes through the Suez canal, and that put oil prices up. In fact, they went down initially, which is interesting, but then they went up just on one particular ship. That's not exactly answering question, but it is honing into the fact that you do need a networked approach to it. So by predicting that sort of thing in a systematic way, gives us the opportunity assuming there is some altruism," Okay, what do we do about this? And we've been worrying that particular problem since forever. You and I inaudible the big food aid programs from the 1980s. What's happened with those? You're still seeing that food insecurity. So it needs to address the underlying problems and sustainable solutions that have to be within their own countries. But I go back to the understanding the problem as with everything is the most important thing. So, and that requires asking the right question. One thing that we don't necessarily do particularly well, certainly in the intelligence, we're all criticized for not doing, is that predictive intelligence, what's going to happen and when it's going to happen.
Harry: That multi- lateralism which you're alluding to there, I think it's fair to say has shrunk and it's prevalent in the world. We've seen a lot more nationalist views coming to the floor. As you mentioned, the pandemic, COVAX, a great idea, multi- national approach to a significant global problem and yet it's still struggling to get the vaccines that it needs to distribute across countries that can't afford to buy them for themselves. I think the key there that I want to focus on just for a second though Sean, as we round this out is knowing how to ask the right questions is part of the solution. Knowing how to answer them is another part very closely associated to asking the a question. You've got to be able to answer them and bringing together multiple different disciplines of information, multiple different disciplines of expertise to create a common understanding of the problem is really what you're alluding to in terms of finding those answers and that integration of intelligence and information is a phenomenally difficult thing to do when you have, just for example, just different lexinans being described, different languages being used, both in the literal sense of language, but also in the terms of the way you describe things within a language. All of those things make it very difficult to synthesize a coherent answer that can be widely understood and then use as actionable, hopefully predictive intelligence to drive change. Then you get to the problem that you've, you've also identified, which is having understood the problem, which is a massive issue in itself. You've then got to actually have the political will and the capability to do something about it, to actually enact what you know needs to be done. I think one of the things we might well see from the non- traditional threat of pandemic health issues, which we've certainly experienced in the last year or more, is governments being more prepared. The stitch in time principle being applied more frequently for things like health pandemics, that governments of the world that had managed to buy themselves the ventilating machines, the test and trace technologies, et cetera. So all of those things I hope will be pre- positioned to your point earlier so that you can start to deal with them. You mentioned climate issues, being another one where you would need to pre- position disaster relief capabilities in areas where there are going to be hurricane threats or typhoon threats. These sorts of activities are multilateral, but knowing where to put them, why you're putting them there requires you to go back to that middle of the three or four points I made earlier, is that going to go, which is answering the question and synthesizing all this information together. So one of the things I'd like to do in a future iteration of this conversation Sean is actually look at how we bring together intelligence, how do you bring together multi disciplined groups? How do you take all that expertise they've got and synthesize it down to the question and answer that you need to ask and provide the answer to. The lack of the ability to do that, I think is a significant impediment to finding the answers we need to act and know what to act upon. So let's have a conversation in the future Sean, stemming out of this wall around so- called complex nontraditional threat to then in the intelligence community, and I don't mean just the military intelligence now, let's talk about that intelligence in the wider pan government sense, pan societal sense to understand how do you integrate that information and make it so that it's actionable from a common understanding and a commonly recognized picture.
Sean : That would be a very good discussion to have actually, because there's lots of barriers to that. It's actually quite simple problem to write down on paper, but actually addressing it for real. And one of those problems is cultural actually, knowledge is power, and I'm going to bet this is my turf, but without that pan approach, which I know certainly the UK has government, if you look at the integrated review is very much taking more seriously. But just going back to what you're saying from an analytical perspective, you've got to zoom out a little bit and of course that needs multi- source intelligence to try and come up with that answer.
Harry: Yeah. There is a tendency isn't there to try and find mono causal links between things because it makes it relatively straightforward to ask the question," How do I fix that cause? It's that that's causing the problem when actually just showed it's multi causal. It's very complicated and interrelated, but, and the heart of that is the ability to bring together multiple sources of information and synthesize them into a commonly understood view of what's going on and what's causing the problems that you're encountering. So let's put that on our agenda for our next session, if not the next one, certainly the one after that, to start looking at how you actually do the integration of intelligence, because without that integration of the intelligence information, you've got the expertise that's available to you. My view is that you end up with two simplistic an answer and therefore at best, a very crude response to what's actually a very complicated and sophisticated problem to solve.
Sean : And those unattended consequences as well, of course. You might solve something over here and make it far worse over there.
Harry: I do remember with some dread the days of effects based operations being all singing, all dancing, and actually it's incredibly complicated to understand the cause of the effects. Let alone the thing you've got to do to save yourself from the second tier, third tier problems you've created by the first thing you've done. So Sean, thank you for that. Non- traditional threats, are they actually the new traditional threats that we face? I think so. I think we are going to face a world that is increasingly clear to us that what we used to see as non- traditional is actually now the contemporary threat that is part of our every day, but again, maybe one for another session Sean in the future. How do you deal with all of that whilst right in the middle of it, perhaps buried below the ambient noise level is a very traditional threat there's now mustering on your border. So that's something we'll need to talk about again in the future, but as ever, we've got more to talk about than time. So let me thank you for the talking about non- traditional, are they the new traditional threats? Let's pick it up from there next time. Sean, thank you.
Sean : Great, my pleasure.